Have you ever wondered how languages are made? Who invents all the rules anyway? Are we really ‘hard wired’ for language acquisition or is it something we learn if given the right set of circumstances? Or both?
It’s rare that we get to see the birth of a whole new language…one that develops completely naturally, without any help from role models or teachers. But that’s exactly what happened in Nicaragua in the early 1980′s, and it gives us great insight into the ‘nature’ vs. ‘nurture’ question of language acquisition.
Prior to the early ’80′s, most deaf children in Nicaragua had little or no contact with other deaf children or adults. Their means of communication were limited to a set of ad hoc gestures that ‘made sense’ to family members. But when the government opened its first school for the deaf in Managua, all that changed. Two hundred children had the opportunity, for the first time, to convey their thoughts, feelings, and ideas as fully as any hearing child in Nicaragua, or around the world. But first they had to create the means to do so…
According to Ann Stenhgas of the Language Acquisition Development and Research Laboratory in New York City:
“…as (the children) interacted, they began to change the gestures and home signs they were using. Their vocabulary grew quickly over those first few years, just like when a little child learns to talk. Their signs became more systematized, more regular, and less gestural. The structure of signed sentences became much more complicated. By the time this generation became adults, at the end of the 1980s, their signs were rapid and fluent. The language had grown to resemble other languages around the world. It could now express ideas as complex as any other language.”
It joined the family of more than 6,300 human languages and is called Nicaragua Sign Language, or NSL.
Languages share an essential, bottom-line characteristic: they’re governed by as strict set of intricate rules. But who ‘makes up’ these rules? I think the answer comes from the children of Nicaragua. Communities of people who need to interact in similar ways not only create language, they can do so in less than a decade. Wow!
Sometimes our accent reduction learners are amazed by the number of pronunciation rules that govern the American accent. At the beginning, it may seem overwhelming. But I’m on the side of “we’re hard wired for language acquisition” – all aspects of it. Language learning is part of our universal, human experience. And just as a decade is more like a nanosecond with respect to inventing an entire language, 15 hours of instruction (our standard English pronunciation training program) is a blink of the eye.
It’s not an easy task to learn a new language, but I think we can all be inspired by the creators of NSL. For those who are mastering a second language, rest assured that we’re programmed for success.
Watch the story on YouTube about how Nicaragua Sign Language came into being
Many of us have heard that when a person, sadly, loses their vision, their hearing gets better. Sometimes their hearing gets extraordinarily better. Recently I came across an article in the New York Times that discussed a similar phenomenon, albeit with a twist. In this case, a woman who lost her hearing used her vision…to bring back her hearing. That’s phenomenal-in the true sense of the word!
There’s abundant research confirming that people can use areas of the brain designed for specific tasks in radically different ways. The woman who became deaf, for example, used lip reading to associate the shapes of the speaker’s mouth with sounds she once clearly heard. Over time, she could ‘hear’ when reading lips. When she saw a person put the tip of their tongue between their teeth, for example, she literally ‘heard’ a “th” sound. Her mind didn’t know the difference. Her doctor explained,
“…she was so adept at lip-reading that it was easy to forget she was deaf. Once, without thinking, I turned away from her as I was speaking. “I can no longer hear you,” she said sharply.
“You mean you can no longer see me,” I said.
“You may call it seeing,” she answered, “but I experience it as hearing.”
Lip-reading, seeing mouth movements, was immediately transformed for this patient into “hearing” the sounds of speech in her mind. Her brain was converting one mode of sensation to another.
This neural phenomenon also relates to the way we learn accurate pronunciation. While people sometimes tell me, “It’s impossible to reduce my accent”, it’s actually more than possible…it happens every day. But I understand their frustration.
For years these individuals, trying hard to learn the American accent, have been told, “Listen and repeat, listen and repeat.” However, it takes a whole lot more than a regiment of “listen and repeat”! It takes associating what things look like (the shape of the mouth) with what things sounds like (vowels and consonants). If you’d like to speak with an American accent, I recommend watching your listener’s mouth very carefully. Notice how they’re using their tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw to make a specific English sound. This is the critical first step; now it’s time to listen and repeat. Try this for one week and see how fast you’ll be on your way to speaking with less frustration and more clarity, ease, and confidence.
The Accent Reduction Institute’s mission statement is a little deceiving. It states, Eliminating Language Barriers While Helping People Maintain Their Unique Cultural Identity. While this certainly isn’t untrue, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Our “M.O.” is actually bigger than it may appear: bring joy to our clients, joy to their organizations, joy to their clients, and joy to our faculty and curriculum writers. That’s our goal. Our objective. Our end all, be all. To borrow from the French…creating joy is our raison d’etre.
Why all the fuss about something as touchy-feely as “joy”? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to expect an American accent training company‘s objective to be more along the lines of…helping people be more productive? Or giving people the tools they need to better communicate their professional expertise to colleagues and clients? Or enabling our international workforce to raise the bottom line of their companies? Of course! But these objectives are the logical consequences of what we do (accent modification), not why we do it.
Our mission statement speaks to our more fundamental goal of helping people fully participate in their own lives. Most of our program participants sought training because they were frustrated by the constant question, “What? What did you say? Can you repeat that? I don’t understand what you’re saying.” By the time they found us, they’d already shut down a part of themselves.
If you had two proposals in front of you, one from a company whose employees held back from full participation and one whose employees were eager to jump in and joyously innovate, problem solve, and assist…which company would you choose? Perhaps the companies that hire us may even say that Joy is their ultimate ROI as well…after their personnel complete pronunciation training these companies get, and retain, customers who appreciate working with them.
I recently asked our Director of Curriculum and Training, Barb Niemann, about the highlight of her year. Barb’s answer? “Our participants can now speak English without a language barrier. They’re happy. Their managers are happy. Their clients are happy. I’m thrilled.”
NPR recently published a fascinating article entitled Unfamiliar Accents Turn Off Humans And Songbirds. If you were to read this title, wouldn’t you assume that meant unfamiliar accents are a ‘turn off’ to people and birds? That’s what I assumed…and it led me to read further.
As we know, a ‘turn-off’ is an idiomatic expression that means to repulse or repel. This article, however, was certainly not talking about a supposedly abhorrent nature of unfamiliar accents. For as we know, depending on our experiences and perspectives, accents can either be a ‘turn-off’ or a ‘turn-on’. Think of a French accent and all kinds of ooh-la-la come to mind!
The article was highlighting a phenomenon that neurologists from Scotland recently discovered when examining brain activity in people exposed to unfamiliar accents. Their findings? Activity in the temporal region of the brain (the region that process voice discrimination) ‘turns off’, or at least greatly diminishes. But does this suggest that accents are a turn-off? Hardly! It simply notes that sounds which don’t occur in one’s native language are processed as an ‘accent’ and not given as much relevance.
In the world of cognitive linguistics, this phenomenon is known as NLNC (Native Language Neural Commitment). It means that as we identify the speech patterns of our native language, our brains create neural pathways that recognize, respond, and commit to the pronunciation patterns of our first language. Over time, other speech sounds are seen as “accented” speech.
Interestingly, researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Duke University have discovered that songbirds, like people, have regional ‘accents’ and tend to respond to songs in a familiar accent. Swamp sparrows from Pennsylvania sound markedly different than swamp sparrows from New York. Does this mean that one bird’s accent is ‘right’ and the other is ‘wrong’? Of course not!
As far as people and our accents are concerned, heavy accents that create language barriers may prevent effective communication. But accents that don’t impede communication are an important part of our identity. If, as seems to be the case, birds of a feather sing together….it might do us some good to remember we need sopranos, tenors and everything in between to create perfect harmony.
ARI faculty provide communication training for a wide variety of organizations: those in corporate America, academia, the US Department of Defense, non-profit community agencies, etc. And, without exception, there’s an emphasis on a new area of proficiency that reflects the diversity of our current task/workforces: cultural competency.
What in the world is that? What does it mean to be culturally competent? In pursuit of an answer, I’ve found that while the specifics change from organization to organization, the phrase always includes a common objective: understanding the culture of those with whom we work and serve in order to create partnership and collaboration.
There are all kinds of ways to become culturally competent:
- We can learn business protocols, dining etiquette, and greeting and leave-taking customs.
- We can learn about religious perspectives and historical experiences that shape views of family, community, and team building.
- We can also learn how language reflects people’s views of culture and their place in it. If language is the vehicle that conveys information, culture is the lens we use to interpret it.
Being culturally competent means knowing how to speak in ways that go beyond simply exchanging information; it means using language to build successful relationships. How can we demonstrate cultural competency in our diverse workplaces? A good starting point is to hit ‘delete’ on that one phrase we habitually use when we don’t understand someone’s accent: “What? What did you say?” While ill-will is certainly not intended, often this phrase does more harm than good. The message behind the message, the meta-message, is, “I don’t understand because you have a problem speaking.” Not helpful for establishing goodwill and camaraderie. Instead of “what did you say”, try, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand. Could you please repeat that for me?” The meta-message is altogether different.
Hollywood? Broadway? Ann Arbor, MI? Where do you find a real Accent trainer? It used to be, only five short years ago, that an accent expert was someone who trained actors and actresses how to speak with a foreign accent for a specific role. Think Tom Hanks in Forest Gump, Kevin Kline in French Kiss, or Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. And of course, who could possibly forget the scene in The Pink Panther where the accent trainer was trying to teach Steve Martin how to say ‘hamburger’ with an American accent?
But these days, when someone uses the terms “accent trainer” or “accent coach,” an altogether different set of expertise comes to mind…at least for those of us in the world of corporate, multicultural diversity training. The terms no longer conjure up visions of a movie star being prepped for his or her role in an upcoming blockbuster. Nowadays, the image is often one of foreign-born business professionals wanting to learn English pronunciation in order to convey–not a set of scripted lines–but technical and professional expertise in the real world of team building and good client service. In conference rooms and training offices around the globe, an accent trainer refers to someone creating inclusiveness in our business environments by eliminating language barriers in our diverse, global workforce.
What do an accent trainer in Hollywood and, say, Ann Arbor, MI have in common? If we scratch below the surface, a whole lot! While those working in the film industry tend to think of this line of work as ‘adding an accent’, people, quite mistakenly, think of corporate accent trainers as ‘taking away’ a person’s accent. Not so. At least not at the Accent Reduction Institute. As I’ve talked about in previous blogs, ‘accent reduction’ is a deceiving misnomer for our line of work. Both kinds of accent trainers mentioned above enable people to pronounce sounds that exist in a target language that don’t occur in his/her first language. A highly proficient accent trainer –a true expert- will teach people how to go from one accent to another.
At the Accent Reduction Institute, we call this code-switching, and it’s an integral part of our curriculum. Why? Because it’s always about giving people a choice of how, where, and when they’d like to express and convey their ideas and expertise. Accent trainers in the film industry and accent trainers for the business world may have two different objectives. But we share one common denominator: we teach people how to speak with clarity, confidence, authenticity, and ease.
What would you think if you woke up one day and suddenly your usual speech patterns were replaced by a seemingly foreign accent? Suddenly, the ‘you’ that everyone knows and loves has disappeared! How much of your identity would you feel was compromised? For me, the worst part would be not having the ability to choose which accent to adopt and not knowing how to turn it on and off at will. (At the Accent Reduction Institute, we call this ‘code switching’ and it’s part of our accent neutralization training program.)
Although the scenario described above may seem like something from a children’s novel, for sufferers of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) it’s an unpleasant reality. The syndrome usually occurs after a brain injury, trauma, or stroke, and it’s suggested that the best diagnostic team for the rare disorder includes a neurologist, radiologist, neuropsychologist, clinical psychologist, and speech-language pathologist. That’s quite a team for a disorder that impacts a person’s speech. Perhaps this speaks (no pun intended) to the complexity of the language learning process.
So what’s the big deal about a new speech pattern or accent? I think the core of the issue is that personal identity, how we portray ourselves to others, and how others see us, includes our language style. And even if FAS doesn’t make us feel different about ourselves, it may impact the way others perceive us. Professor Nick Miller states, “The notion that sufferers speak in a foreign language is something that is in the ear of the listener rather than the mouth of the speaker.” Like everything else in life, it’s all about choice. If I could choose which accent to use and when, and therefore how to impact my ability to communicate with others…Bingo! I’d be the first one to sign up!
A word’s meaning is often shaped by the way it sounds. A few examples will make this obvious. Take, for example, the exclamations “Wow”, “Cool”, and “Yuck”. But did you know that the way words sound can actually influence our buying decisions?
This phenomenon was described, as an aside, in an Op-Ed article by Daniel Gilbert in the New York Times. Mr. Gilbert talked about the link between what linguists call ‘short’ and ‘long’ vowels and how we subconsciously associate words with ‘smallness’ and ‘bigness’. Short vowels (like the ‘i’ in “thin”) tend to make us think of smallness and words with long vowels (like the ‘uw’ in “hoop”) connect us with a feeling of bigness. Here’s how it works in terms of how we choose what to purchase. According to Mr. Gilbert, prices that end with a short vowel will seem less expensive than prices that end with long vowels…even if their numerical value is larger. That’s phenomenal.
Gilbert describes a study where “one group was shown an ad for an ice-cream scoop that was priced at $7.66, while another was shown an ad for a $7.22 scoop. The lower price is the better deal, of course, but…shoppers who were offered the scoop at the higher price of $7.66 were more likely to buy it than those offered the price of $7.22 – but only if they’d been asked to say the price aloud.”
Isn’t it interesting that $7.66 ends with the ‘i’ sound associated with smallness and $7.22 ends with the ‘uw’ sound associated with bigness? We’ve known for sometime that colors, facial expressions, and ‘subliminals’ influence our purchasing decisions. But the fact that short and long vowels had a connection to the PayPal process? This was news to me. As a phonetician, here’s my advice: Read the price, silently, before hitting ‘submit’.
The Accent Reduction Institute (ARI) is privileged to have a sister company, Menlo Innovations…“Menlo” for short. Menlo is a state-of-the-art software company inspired by the innovative approach of Thomas Edison’s invention factory. As you can imagine, working with the brightest (no pun intended!) software designers has not only helped ARI create accent reduction software for independent study, but also apply the natural learning process to American accent training…online.
Improving your American accent with computer based learning is no easy feat. And yet we’ve found that online learners can make the same rate of improvement as those who participate in onsite training. What’s the key to cracking the code? It doesn’t necessarily lie in using the computer to replace live training. Instead, the solution is to combine live instruction with computer based training, in tandem. Unlike the laws of nature, language evolved to meet a social need: to communicate in order to convey information and negotiate social relationships. Language is interactive; computerized learning tools need to be too.
So how do you get rapid and long-lasting results using computerized tools and modalities? The answer lies in methodology. For accent neutralization training to show hard and fast results, we don’t need to eliminate the live instructor. Au contraire.
For example, at ARI we leverage global, virtual classrooms to simulate what we call a ‘Brady Bunch’ scenario. Several people are logged on concurrently from all over the world…no disconnects between voice and vision, all simulating the classroom experience in real-time. The result? Fantastic pronunciation. Rather than looking at computers as a replacement for expert instructors, we can think of an American pronunciation program online as a kind of ‘force multiplier’. When students share virtual white-boards, screen shares and, more fundamentally, receive feedback from their instructor, we use computers as helpers rather than replacers.
For those who fear that computers need replace the teacher…rest easy. We have metrics to prove otherwise.
I heard a delightful interview on NPR last week with Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herse, founders of the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL). Deck and Herse explained that typos are often caused by the discrepancies between the way English words are spelled and the way they’re pronounced. Any student of American accent training can surely sympathize, if not from the spelling side of the equation, than from the pronunciation side.
Members of the TEAL team recognize that, unfortunately, a solid 14% of English words are not spelled phonetically. Yikes! How can a student of English pronunciation training possibly contend with this? Thankfully, the situation is less dire than it may seem.
Part of the Accent Reduction Institute’s methodology is to address this situation head on. Contrary to what we may think, non-phonetic spelling patterns often correspond to “mini” pronunciation rules. And there are many! Once we identify these rules, pronunciation becomes a far less daunting task.
For example, let’s take the letter ‘t’. It can be pronounced in the following ways: “t” (as in time, two, and test); “d” (as in party, sorted, and Carter); “sh” (as in fraction, nation, and solution); “ch” (as in nature, future and fracture), and the list goes on. It’s fascinating (if you’re an English aficionado like I am) to recognize that these different pronunciations consistently conform to hard-and-fast spelling rules. While I won’t bore you with the entire canon of English spelling-pronunciation law, I’ll share just one: When the letter ‘t’ is between an ‘r’ and a vowel, as in the word “mortar”, the ‘t’ is pronounced like a ‘d’. This is just one of many examples where seemingly non-phonetic spelling patterns are actually key pronunciation rules. With a little instruction, pronunciation patterns become easy as pie.
The process of learning pronunciation rules reminds me of the last time I bought a car. When I finally decided on a Ford Escape, suddenly parking lots and highways were full of them…it appeared they were everywhere! The same goes for pronunciation. Once you realize that the letter ‘t’ between two vowels is pronounced like a ‘d’ (as in the word “water”) you’ll notice this mini-rule popping up in every other sentence. Soon you’ll find yourself saying “liter” like “leader” and “atom” like “Adam”. English pronunciation doesn’t need to be as daunting as it first appears. To quote Shakespeare, one of our great English masters, “There really is a method to the madness!”